The Future of Legal Advice (or how to assure conviction) (Insta-Update)

When  first I checked out the offerings of Justin Peters, whose bona fides to run a blog about crime were somewhat lacking, it was largely tongue-in-cheek.  On the up side, the content was salacious crime stories that were the legal equivalent of an in-depth TMZ story about Lindsay Lohan. On the downside, he was writing for Slate, one of the big kahunas of the interwebz.

That meant a lot of people would read it, far more than any blog written by a lawyer who was educated, experienced or knowledgeable about the law. But as long as it was just dopey fluff, so what? It’s not like people hadn’t been fed stories that illuminated nothing forever. So what if there was a new player in town?

But people, being the way they are, confused the fact that Justin Peters wrote a blog about law with his having anything remotely resembling knowledge of law, the I-play-a-doctor-on-TV syndrome, and did the unthinkable :

Since then, I’ve received a lot of emails from readers asking what, exactly, you should do if you find yourself in a supposedly consensual conversation with an officer of the law. Apparently a lot of innocent, non-suspicious-looking people have been or expect to be pressured into gratuitous interactions with the police. And, from the emails I’ve received, a lot of people have no interest in talking to the law in these situations. Which, to be sure, is their right.

This was a watershed introspective moment for Peters, who could have admitted that he’s just a writer, working a gig for which he is grossly unqualified, and made clear that he cannot offer legal advice.  But since he’s not a lawyer, and he’s not qualified, and he lacks the basic self-awareness that his reach far, far exceeds his grasp, he chose instead to do exactly what he should not, he cannot do:

You’re under no obligation to talk with a police officer in non-investigatory situations, and you shouldn’t be intimidated into feeling otherwise. (And to be clear, I’m not talking about those times when a cop stops you for speeding, or jaywalking, or stealing an old woman’s purse. In scenarios like these, when there’s reasonable suspicion that you’ve done something wrong, you’re obliged to cooperate, and refusal to comply may lead to your arrest.)

This is fundamentally wrong, but there’s no reason to believe that Peters would know this. And after this post, the question is how many readers of Slate will carry around the baggage of stupidity as well, believing that they are “obliged to cooperate” because some kid on the internet who works for Slate said so.

He goes on to qualify his statements somewhat with an article by a lawprof, clearly another excellent source of how street encounters with cops actually happen, which ironically never actually explains the basic assertion of rights that any lawyer with three minutes experience can explain. 

This isn’t to say that no person without a bar card can offer anything thoughtful about criminal law. Indeed, two individuals immediately come to mind, Radley Balko, head  Agitator until he went over to Huffington Post, who has long been a go-to source major issues and has provided incredibly thoughtful and important work in criminal justice.  The other is Scott Henson from Grits for Breakfast, whose work on Texas criminal justice issues is some of the best. 

But both of these guys share a common understanding: as knowledgeable as they may be in the arena of criminal law, they do not cross the line of pretending to be lawyers themselves and offering legal advice.  It’s not that they couldn’t have answered the question posed to Justin Peters as well as any criminal lawyer. They’ve heard the question (as have we all) more than enough to know exactly what to say. But they similarly appreciate that they are not lawyers. To the extent they occasionally tread close to the line, they at least base their references in sound advice rather than come up with nonsense on their own.

What happened at Slate demonstrates that the futurists, like Richard Susskind, who contend that the need for lawyers is past as anyone can play a lawyer on the internet, where every bit of human information, legal or otherwise, is readily available and anyone can find the answer to anything with the push of a button.

How many people will find Justin Peters’ “answer” at Slate and believe that they’re “obliged to cooperate”?

This isn’t a game to be played by the clueless who are given a soapbox, and in this case a very large, very loud bullhorn to go with it, to spread fundamentally wrong information far and wide.  Yet, if we leave it in the hands of writers like Justin Peters, whose attempt at a  humorous self-description turns out to be far more accurate than anyone would have guessed :

In short, I’m just the sort of preening, narcisisstic [sic] sociopath you’d want writing a blog like this.

Meet your new source for criminal law legal advice on the web. What could possibly go wrong?

H/T Ken @Popehat, who  was shocked to learn that Slate had a  crime blog offering legal advice.

Update:  Patrick @Popehat (maybe it was Patrick rather than Ken who was shocked?)  debates the merits with almost-Joe Arpaio, during which he notes something I was totally unaware of.  This is what was actually posted at Instapundit :

January 21, 2013

NEWS YOU CAN USE: Here Are Some Tips on How to Avoid “Consensual” Police Encounters.

Reynolds does not play a law professor on TV, but actually is one. You can’t make this stuff up.

5 thoughts on “The Future of Legal Advice (or how to assure conviction) (Insta-Update)

  1. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    Wow, that Slate dude is soooooo far off in left field. Can you spell UPL?? . . .

    As any idiot knows by now, the recent precedent set under Swartz v. Insogna described the proper way to respond to requests for cooperation by the Man ™ – one must immediately invoke the ancient gesture of disdain and remain totally silent; that is, by extending your middle finger positioned in such a manner that the Man™ clearly understands you have complete knowledge of your rights, all the while holding your breath, just for sh!ts and giggles . . .

    Well, you do that until you get tased in the neck, punched in the stomach, and choked out. At that point, you’re pretty much on your own, as I don’t have any great legal advice for you there – I’m still anxiously awaiting some good case law for that particular set of circumstances . . .

  2. Rob Switzer

    I just want to post in defense of the law professor upon whom this author relies: Daniel Steinbock, now Dean of the Toledo College of Law, was actually my professor of criminal procedure. He was easily one of the best law professors I had in law school, and I think a large reason for that was because he wasn’t just an academic, but a seasoned criminal practitioner. Like you, he practiced criminal defense in New York City.

    I don’t think Dean Steinbock ever suggested in his article that you’re “obliged” to cooperate in the manner the author suggests. His law review article, as I understand it, is directed solely at identifying the best way to avoid “consensual encounters” according to case law, which he argues to be vocal refusal to cooperate, or even rudeness and belligerence.

    I guess this just further bolsters your point: This journalist seems to be misunderstanding/misrepresenting a point of the law that he thought he had right, having spoken with/read the work of someone who is not only a law professor, but a former criminal trial lawyer. Laymen who dispense legal advice just don’t grasp the intricacies of the law, and the potential danger involved of not explaining it right. They make a mistake like this, and who knows, maybe someone (or 50 people) end up with a conviction a few months later that could have been avoided.

  3. SHG

    Steinbock’s advice was great, provided one appreciated its nuance and context. But by no means did it lead to Justin’s “obliged to cooperate” epiphany, which I assume would cause Steinbock to do the epic, double facepalm.

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